Church is boring.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.
And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.
And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.
Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.
What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?
That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?
In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.
When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.
But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.
- Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
- The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
- You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?
So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.
And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?
- Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
- Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.
As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.
[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]
In a recent NYT article, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” Gary Deutscher addresses the question of whether our native language affects the way that we think about the world. The article begins with a very nice discussion of Whorf’s (not the Klingon) original theory that a person’s native language constricts their ability to think in certain ways. You may have encountered this, for example, in the popular notion that Hopi Indians cannot think in terms of past/present/future because their language has no tense – i.e., it is an entirely aspectual language. Deutscher points out that this theory “crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims.” As he points out, there is a pretty basic fallacy in this theory: “The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept.” But, we simply don’t work this way. We are perfectly capable of understanding a wide range of concepts for which we have no specific word or grammatical structure in our native langauge.
But, the fact that Whorf’s original theory had some serious flaws does not mean that our native language might not still exercise some influence on the way that we think about the world. So, Deutscher draws on the work of Roman Jakobson to contend, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In other words, our native language does not prevent us from thinking about any given concept, but it may cause us to focus on and highlight particular things in ways that can affect how we view the world. He specifically focuses on how the gender and spatial aspects of a native language can nuance a person’s thinking in important ways. Again, this does not mean that our native languages comprise uncrossable boundaries, necessarily preventing us from understanding foreign concepts. But it does highlight the ways in which we use language to conceptualize and construct the world around us.
I’d encourage you to read the whole article if you’d like a nuanced take on how the way that you’ve learned to speak can impact the ways in which you understand the world around you. Language does not create reality, but it does shape it in important ways.